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Cannes Review: ‘Reality’ Bites the Quest for Fame

"Gomorrah" director Matteo Garrone takes on reality television with his new Cannes entry

"Reality," Robin Williams once said. "What a concept."  But he had no way of knowing how that word would come to be defined in the '90s and through the turn of the millennium.  How could he have known?  Who would have ever thought that millions of people would tune in to watch other people just live?

In Matteo Garrone's "Reality," Aniello Arena plays Luciano, a man living his own life who is coaxed into auditioning for Italian "Big Brother," "Grande Fratello." At first he can't be bothered to show up, but when he does he is seduced into believing he actually has a shot. 

RealityThe more he thinks about it, the more he likes the idea of being one of the chosen few.  He believes the producers are watching his every move, to make sure he's a good man with a moving story that people would want to see.  Every time he is confronted with the bleak truth that he wasn't chosen, he gets more and more desperate to force fate's hand. This eventually blossoms into full blown delusion, his grip with "reality" gone.

"Reality" is a revelation in that it reaches a kind of truth about the times we're living in.  Many of us have long since given up protesting the dismal tide of reality TV, but Frankenstein's monster thrives even in 2012. There doesn't appear to be an end in sight, because the world will never run out of idiots who want their extended 15 minutes of fame. Too many members of the public, in their own way, have opted out of living their own lives for the chance to watch other people live their lives. Interest in soap operas all the world over is dwindling. But interest in reality TV continues unabated.

We feel sorry for anyone who actively wants to be chosen for "Big Brother." It's OK for the fame whores, but it should never be a place for anyone with integrity. Certainly not a place for our hero, a family man with a great wife and children who love him. Sure, it's a struggle to put food on the table. It's no fun dwelling in quiet desperation of real life, but at least you can be sure that the walls around you, and the wife lying next to you, are real.

Garrone's last film, "Gomorrah," was about the reality of the Sicilian mob. It sought to disrobe the criminals for who and what they really were, to peel back the romanticism from films like "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas." "Gomorrah" succeeded, but was a tough sit.  You might think "Reality" is a far cry from the nearly unwatchable violence of that film, but it really isn't so far away, since both films deal with exposing the truth about an insular world. 

"Reality" is easier to handle, though you do still have the sense that you are on the streets in Sicily, not watching a movie. The religious symbolism is peppered throughout – on Twitter, some critics asked, are we watching Job? Or are we watching a man who believes himself to be God — the little people who live in the "Big Brother" house are remade in his image.

It's been 14 years since a serious filmmaker took on the world of reality TV, a phenomenon that has spread like a virus all over the world since "EDtv" and "The Truman Show" first raised the alarm in 1998. In America, there is no end to it. Dirty laundry is the name of the game and most people tune in not to love what they see but to hate it. We are finally allowed to indulge in our worst inclinations — to gossip, to criticize, to judge. All the while, the people on the shows don't care because they're getting a dose of fame without having to do much else except sacrifice their own privacy.

Luciano becomes just like any of the other stars of "Big Brother" — willing to do anything for the chance to be inside.  He's becomes obsessive about the show itself, feels he knows all of the housemates and eventually will stop at nothing to disappear into that world; at some point it stops being about the fame entirely, and becomes instead about joining that pretty little world that has consumed his life.

The last shot of the film, which I won't give away here, resonates brilliantly as a final punctuation mark on reality TV. There can be nothing special about something so ordinary.